More Standard Options

Posted in Top Decks on August 27, 2009

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

The Standard PTQ season is winding down (in my area this weekend is the last qualifier tournament opportunity for Pro Tour–Austin), but in almost unprecedented fashion, more great and interesting decks have continued to appear as a result of combining the powerful components in the format in new or slightly different ways. This article is going to feature one great deck, one quite interesting deck, and one deck that leans towards great without being even remotely interesting. First up, the great:

Dan Gardner's White-Blue Reveillark

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This is the version of the White-Blue Reveillark—really White-Blue Baneslayer Angel—deck that Danny Gardner used to win this year's Great Britain National Championship.

I am just going to speak plainly on this one; I think White-Blue Baneslayer is just the best deck in Standard, at least right this second. If you play Danny's deck or one of the updates that has been peppering the PTQs, Cruise qualifiers, whatever, the overall strategy seems like the tops.

First off, the white-blue deck is relatively high on power level. It plays Cryptic Command if not Cruel Ultimatum, and a nice smattering of high end finishing creatures. If the deck gets an untap with Baneslayer Angel there is a stack of blue reasons why the Angel will go all the way. As Brian Kibler has said elsewhere, an unchecked Baneslayer Angel can be a serious problem for ... um ... decks. It can steal games that are not supposed to go your way like no other available card, and makes for an imposing opponent in creature combat.

The white-blue deck has a solid anti-beatdown matchup. If it can survive to turn five (or maybe turn four with the right acceleration) the Baneslayer Angel can serve as a combination stop sign and long-term Fountain of Youth (oh, and four turn clock). Knight of the White Orchid has first strike that can keep off Kitchen Finks or Bloodbraid Elf, and the mix of fast action from Broken Ambitions with the flexible speed of Vendilion Clique and Path to Exile can help the deck get to that magical Baneslayer Angel point without giving up much in the way of time or mana.

One of the things that make this deck particularly compelling, especially when considered against other Standard Cryptic Command decks, is its ability to essentially ignore Anathemancer. The deck only has about seven nonbasic lands, so the draws where it gets completely blown out by that most threatening Grey Ogre will be relatively few and far between. In fact, the presence of Borderposts makes the white-blue deck unusually resistant to Mistbind Clique as well! Both cards can still have an impact, but in both cases, that impact is reduced, with Anathemancer rarely being good enough to keep in for Games 2 and 3.

Moreover, the combo matchups seem like landslides in favor of white-blue. The combination of Meddling Mages and Vendilion Cliques are a nightmare for most combo decks. Not only do these cards actively suppress specific combo enablers or disentangle the threads lacing towards a perfect turn, they represent pressure that can actually clock the opponent from the first turns of the game.

A card that seems to fit—but then seems not to fit once you look at the deck more closely—then seems to fit again (but for a different reason) is Glen Elendra Archmage. Glen Elendra Archmage was or is a common card for Reveillark decks to play .... You will see it fairly commonly alongside Knight of the White Orchid and Mulldrifter. But this isn't really a Reveillark deck (only one Reveillark main deck). So why is Glen Elendra Archmage here? It is like a LEGO piece that fits perfectly into a LEGO wall ... but the wall is already mostly built and you would have to dislodge and click apart any number of pieces in order to get the Glen Elendra Archmage part into its—admittedly perfectly sized—rightful place. Just seems a bit awkward.

In this deck the Archmage is less an available route to synergy than an essential stepping stone. You see, the Archmage has one job (really one-and-a-half jobs), but one really important one: To protect Baneslayer Angel. So the deck wants to play out the Glen Elendra Archmage, then play the Angel with mana open to take advantage of the Archmage's defensive potential. If you have a mana open and an Archmage in play when you tap down (not out) for the Angel, it tends to be fairly difficult to lose. For one, Baneslayer Angels aren't that easy to kill; at 5 toughness, they are outside the range of most red removal spells, even the big ones like Flame Javelin; plus, the Angel's first strike makes the "attack into it and Bolt" one-for-two a non-option. Moreover, most decks just won't have two copies of Doom Blade in their hands when you present your Angel. Even if they have two copies, they will be able to destroy the Angel only at great cost, and if you have two mana open, the battlefield will remain difficult for them, if not completely untenable. In a pre-resolution spot, you can use the Glen Elendra Archmage to CounterspellCounterspells, just to help the big girl to hit the table, really aggravating most control decks, which will still have to dig through the Archmage's last gasp if they want to handle the Baneslayer.

That same Glen Elendra Archmage serves a nice secondary function: it keeps Cruel Ultimatum off of you ... like forever in most games. An Archmage is already on the table, so you can't really lose a counterspell war if it is involved. Even getting rid of the Archmage is annoying. It has persist, and even in the case of a card like Hallowed Burial (which can overcome persist), we are still talking about a spell ... which it can easily counter for just one blue mana. Dizzying to talk about, yes ... and worse when you are on the other side of the table trying to figure out how to beat this seemingly awkward and misplaced 2/2 for four.

Interestingly, and perhaps a little nonintuitively, creatures may be better for dealing with the white-blue deck's creatures than spells. For instance, Shriekmaw might just be better than Doom Blade for killing a Baneslayer Angel, at least when we are exploring the role of Glen Elendra Archmange, just because the default Archmage plan won't automatically save the game. A well-placed Shriekmaw or Sower of Temptation can beat a single open blue mana, and even in a longer game the white-blue deck will at least have to have a "real" answer to your answer as opposed to leaning on the persist-ant Faerie.

The main disadvantage to the deck is its unusual mana base. Yes, the deck has nearly 50% primary mana sources ... but in order to take advantage of those, the deck usually has to get a little ahead, come from behind, or just get lucky on the order drawn. While it will chug along with the best of mana-dropping decks once it gets going, the white-blue deck's Knight of the White Orchids and Borderposts represent a fundamental inertia that will have to be overcome that is somewhat more daunting than most decks before it can get to that point. For example if you draw Glacial Fortress and two Borderposts as your "lands," you will probably have to mulligan.

That said, once you get over the initial hurdles of the mana base, it can look deceptively quick. Knight of the White Orchid can give you a legitimate boost without skipping any development, thanks to the Borderposts. An underrated play is to actually cast a Borderpost (rather than substituting it for a land drop)! Either this or an accelerated Knight can plop out an early Angel, which for all the reasons stated above, can be a real problem for ... well ... decks.

Next up, from the realm of the very interesting, a current darling of at least part of our New York play group ....

So I walked into the Top 8 Magic offices the other night to meet up and go watch Inglourious Basterds when I saw numerous notable or at least semi-notable players all huddled over BDM's computer. Two or three of the players had had Pro Tour Qualifier–winning (or at least Grand Prix Trial–winning) deck lists published in this here column over the past couple of months, and all of them had very vocal opinions, which could be heard past the collectively hideous laughter. They were all arguing over what should happen next; they were all having what seemed like a good old time.

I pushed my way to the computer screen and could discern the source of their arguing dilemma. There were about a bajillion lands in play, some enchanted with Fertile Ground, not one but two playable planeswalkers on "our" side of the battlefield, some Beast tokens, and a mostly-tapped-out (and probably irate) Merfolk deck staring across.

"Well, I guess we can't draw any more Cryptic Commands," chuckled Gabe Carleton-Barnes as "we" (really Brian David-Marshall) plucked his card for the turn—the third such Command in hand, and apparently the fourth in the top half of the deck. "Our" hand was juiced with Firespouts, the aforementioned Cryptic Commands, and a variety of time-stealing sorceries. To make what ended up being a very long story somewhat less long, BDM Time Warped, Twincast his Time Warp, played a Shelldock Isle (flipping over Time Warp), used Garruk Wildspeaker to untap it, Cryptic Commanded the land for a next turn re-play ... and ... and ... you get the gist, I think.

A disgusted Steve Sadin had already exiled himself from the group. Steve had already figured out how to make three Beast tokens, tap the opposing Merfolk forces, and use Garruk's ultimate Overrun ability to legitimately win with the resources at hand ... but no one wanted to listen to him, not while BDM could enact these ridiculous shenanigans while arguing over the proper use of, ahem, Savor the Moment, while trying to figure out how to intersect a double Jace ultimate with the Isle, and Isle again.

The deck in question:

John Mahon's Green-Blue Time Warp

Download Arena Decklist
Planeswalker (8)
4 Garruk Wildspeaker 4 Jace Beleren
Instant (7)
4 Cryptic Command 3 Twincast
Artifact (4)
4 Howling Mine
Enchantment (5)
4 Fertile Ground 1 Mirror Sheen
61 Cards

This is a version of the Green-Blue Time Warp deck that John Mahon played to a recent Top 8 finish at a Roanoke PTQ. It is a different take on the Time Walk strategy than we examined last week; as you can see, it doesn't play Time Sieve at all, nor the other version's signature game-ending Planeswalker.

I have only played the deck a few matches so far, but from just those, I can say that it has a diverse array of ways to win. The first time I ran it, I had my back against the wall against a Red Deck Wins deck and went for a desperation Time Warp. This led to a Time Warp backed up by Twincast, and then another Time Warp backed up by Twincast (lucky, I know). During all those free turns I had the time to play Garruk Wildspeaker, make about three Beasts, start attacking, and get back a nice chunk of the game with Primal Command, all while drawing extra cards with Jace Beleren. My opponent had beat me to 2 life with a Demigod of Revenge, but by the time he got his turn back I had a Cryptic Command in hand and more than enough life to withstand his next attack, plus multiple burn spells. He would eventually have fallen to Beast tokens, had he not just conceded.

The next game, I shipped to five cards, but the insane power level of the deck's green and blue cards pulled me out of it (most importantly Primal Command). After some Beast play and clever interactions between Fertile Ground, Savor the Moment, and Garruk Wildspeaker's untap ability (largely knocking out the drawback on Savor the Moment), I had sufficient mana to play a Banefire doubled up by Twincast for yet another kill from, in my green estimation, quite an unusual angle.

In another match I opened up with Fertile Ground against a couple of control nonbasics. My opponent foolishly played an Arcane Sanctum for his third land, and thanks to my Fertile Ground, I was able to resolve Jace Beleren and just start drawing. I had Howling Mine, but I declined to play that—ever—and just milked Jace for an embarrassing amount of card advantage, spending him before running out another Jace. Before I knew it, Primal Command had found Twincast as its best friend, and we were shuffling up for the next game ... which actually went the way of Acidic Slime beatdown after a long succession of Great Sable Stags and Beast tokens wore down his defenses.

BDM actually likes to go the second-turn Howling Mine / third-turn Savor the Moment route, and has won with multiple ultimate activations on Jace Beleren. I am sure that at some point someone actually took down a game with the tokens from that singleton Martial Coup, perhaps even Overrun-style.

The deck is exciting because it is chock full of four-ofs that either normally compete with one another, don't usually end up in the same decks, or both. Four Jace Beleren next to four Garruk Wildspeaker. Four Cryptic Commands arms linked with a bunch of Primal Commands. That last card takes some getting used to in my opinion. My most common modes are to put a card on top of the opponent's library and to go search up some awesome threat like Anathemancer or Enlisted Wurm ... but this deck doesn't have any creatures at all in the main deck, so you will probably be gathering up 7 life more often than not. Still, it is an awesome card to double up on, feeling very "Plow Under" in a deck concerned with controlling time.

Operationally, the deck plays like a Jund Mana Ramp or Five-Color Control deck, laying down lands, sometimes Fertile Grounds, and then planeswalkers, using those permanents to get a little ahead. Small leads grow, and all of a sudden you have the mana to start Twincasting five-mana sorceries! Alternately—especially if the opponent didn't open on some Mountain-variant—I would consider running out a second-turn Howling Mine and going for completely different Jace activations ... But as I said, I have not played the deck a whole lot.

It is probably the most fun you can have in Standard while still remaining competitive.

... And, lastly, the not remotely interesting:

I was lucky enough to make Top 8 of this past weekend's Edison, NJ PTQ with this deck list:

Blightning Beatdown

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I noticed that, statistically speaking, Blightning Beatdown was one of (if not the) top performing decks through multiple National Championships. I had experience from playing the archetype previously, and missed a $5K Top 8 by getting my butt handed to me by Kithkin.

With this version, I resolved not to have that happen again, and I loaded the deck with protection from white creatures that ended up being great in non-Kithkin matchups, as well. Goblin Outlander is just fine at scaring off Kitchen Finks and Steward of Valeron, and even blocking (if not eliminating) huge threats like Wilt-Leaf Liege.

The most compelling reason to go with Blightning for me—beyond the paper statistics which opened the door—was that you can draw two copies of Blightning, two copies of Flame Javelin, or two copies of Demigod of Revenge and it often doesn't matter what deck the opponent is playing (Wilt-Leaf Liege notwithstanding). The deck is simple, but despite being restricted to only two colors, it is not less powerful than the other active decks in the format. Blightning itself is a terrific cascade-crusher, and that high-end Demigod draw is as good or better than the best Jund offenses (especially when you consider that Blightning starts attacking a turn or two more quickly, if less impressively on turns three and four).

Demigod of Revenge
Goblin Outlander

Brain someone for 6 and take away four cards ... or eat up 40% of their life total ... or present a pair of highly durable, insanely big and loyal monsters, and winning seems almost effortless. The "weakest" card in the deck is Goblin Outlander, but when you are paired with a deck like Kithkin or Green-White Overrun that is "supposed" to beat Blightning, you will probably be much happier to have that Shivan Zombie wannabe in your stack, than you would the vaunted Putrid Leech.

Would I play the deck again?

Firm maybe.

I just think the metagame may be increasingly hostile as more and more players move towards White-Blue (and more Baneslayer Angel). It just might not be a fight you are looking to wage.

In any case, this one is a not-particularly-interesting take on a known deck, which alongside the white-blue and green-blue decks, makes for quite an interesting trifecta of possibilities. The white-blue deck, again, might just be the best ... think of it as a Five-Color Control that trades Cruel Ultimatum for Anathemancer immunity; the green-blue deck is really something—something quite fun and powerful to play, that is; and the Blightning Beatdown deck, while is it not the most interesting or powerful, kind of keeps the other strategies in check in its ho-hum way. After all, it doesn't matter what kooky combination of cards you have in your hand if you are asked to discard them all (especially while taking 3 damage). Run it again, and it is almost 1996 all over again.

"Hymn to Tourach, Hymn to Tourach, I win."
–The Necropotence National Anthem

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